By Voice General Secretary Deborah Lawson
Whether you work in a private, voluntary or independent childcare establishment, or are in a school-based early years or nursery class, there are two words that are guaranteed to cause a reaction: “Ofsted inspection”. Ofsted’s aim is to regulate and inspect to achieve excellence in care and education, promote improvement and hold schools to account. The remit is broad, as it should be in order to assess fully all those factors which together make up quality.
It has to be said that Ofsted has come to be known, or at least has been perceived, as something of an ogre. When more than 90 per cent of early years and childcare providers are rated good or outstanding, why is Ofsted still widely viewed as the playground bully? Is this reputation justified, or is Ofsted getting a bad press? What we need to know is whether Ofsted is really promoting improvement or has become a device purely to hold settings to account. Is it still a valuable and effective mechanism to drive and support ever-increasing levels of quality, or has it become a necessary evil? If that is the case, is quality improving in defiance of the inspection process, not because of it? In order to establish if there is a foundation for the theories, evidence is required. I am sure the subject alone will evoke emotion, recollections of past inspections, or even fear of impending ones, in many readers, and, yes, offers of evidence. As a union which represents a growing number of early years and childcare staff in all types of settings, Voice is aware, through recent high profile cases brought by nursery owners, and intelligence from our own members – and not only those in need of our support as the result of a poor Ofsted judgement – of the increasing volume of sector disquiet on this subject. Does Ofsted need better PR, or has its time past? Is it time to look at what Ofsted does and how it does it?
With Amanda Spielman still relatively new in post, there is, it seems, no time like the present. Voice welcomed the move by Ofsted to bring early years inspection in house, putting the sector on a level footing with schools and colleges. Voice believes the move will improve the consistency, quality and accountability of early years judgements, which intelligence suggests has been compromised by the contracting-out of inspections. It must be noted that the decision to bring school inspections ‘in house’ was a direct result of concerns raised about consistency, which clearly demonstrated how some inspectors advocated and promoted their own preferred methods of planning, teaching and assessment in direct contradiction to the Ofsted handbook. The early years sector is known for innovation and has no wish to repeat the mistakes experienced by those subject to school inspections. However, Ofsted has not yet released any information on the measures it will put in place to ensure an effective transition. The longer it waits to provide this information, along with how previous poor decisions are to be rectified, the job of restoring the confidence of the sector – providers and the professional workforce – will become harder.
Having direct experience as both an LA registration and inspection officer in the years before Ofsted regulation, and as a contracted early years inspector for Ofsted in the early days of the free entitlement, I am acutely aware of the damage a poorly conducted inspection can inflict and the advantage of a positive inspection experience. As a union, Voice is aware of the same issues, especially how they impact on our members and the valuable work they do with young children. For that reason, Voice is embarking on a small-scale research project looking at the inspection experience of early years providers. We want to know about their experiences before and after April 2017, when early years inspections are brought ‘in house’. Our aim is to look at the process itself and the conduct of the inspectors, and to find out if and how the experience promotes improvement in quality. If you would like to contribute to our research, please email us.